Terrorism: Sugar and charcoal barons sleeping with enemy

Saturday December 6 2014

Suspected Al-Shabaab fighters are paraded at the Uganda Force Contingent headquarters in Mogadishu on February 28, 2014.

Suspected Al-Shabaab fighters are paraded at the Uganda Force Contingent headquarters in Mogadishu on February 28, 2014. AFP FILE PHOTO/ ISAAC KASAMANI NATION MEDIA GROUP

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, suspected Al-Shabaab militants entered a tented labourers’ camp in a quarry 10 kilometres from Mandera, singling out 36 non-Muslims for execution at point-blank range.

At least two men were beheaded, according to witnesses.

The quarry killings followed in the wake of a similarly barbaric attack in the same area two weeks earlier, in which 28 non-Muslim bus passengers — mostly schoolteachers returning to Nairobi for the holidays — lost their lives.

The quarry attack made a mockery of Deputy President William Ruto’s claim that the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) had eliminated more than 100 militants involved in the first massacre.

But the government’s ineptitude in Kenya’s lawless and economically desolate north-eastern region is nothing new, with the cancer of corruption remaining one of the greatest impediments to security.


The rampant smuggling of sugar across the porous border, which has the political backing of wealthy politicians, is a testament to this national failure.

Though Kenya has four police branches as well as the General Service Unit (GSU) and KDF stationed along the 700-kilometre frontier, most units are immobile and undermanned.

Nor does the KDF have the capacity to consistently maintain unmanned aerial vehicles in the air to spot militants and smugglers crossing the border.

“Eighty per cent of the time you’ll get through,” a former senior Kenyan intelligence officer told me.

Corruption among the border security forces has the dual effect of weakening Kenya’s overall ability to prevent militants from entering the country, as well as strengthening Al-Shabaab’s finances.

Charcoal exported through Kismayo, largely to Gulf countries, constituted the principal source of Al-Shabaab revenue before the KDF seized the port in September 2012.

Yet the lesser-known trade is the smuggling of processed sugar from Somalia into Kenya, a consequence of the Kenyan government’s exorbitant tariffs on sugar imports aimed at propping up a flagging domestic industry.


Information provided to me by a regional intelligence source, dating to early 2011 — before Al-Shabaab was driven out of Kismayo by the KDF — depicted a sophisticated sugar-smuggling network with links to the Kenyan political elite.

Through cross-border cooperation with Al-Shabaab-linked brokers in Dhobley, Somalia, the smuggled sugar crossed the border at Liboi and passed through the Dadaab refugee camps before making its way to the regional hub of Garissa.

There it was stored in several depots — two of which are possibly owned by an Al-Shabaab affiliate — before being transported to wholesale markets in Nairobi.

In 2011, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia estimated that Al-Shabaab generated as much as $800,000 (Sh72 million) from import taxes on sugar.

Although Al-Shabaab’s defeats in Lower Juba in 2012 mean the group no longer controls the illicit trade, the smuggling networks that operate it are still active (the intelligence source speculated that the KDF now had “tentacles” in the business, having taken over control of the Dhobley-Kismayo road from Al-Shabaab).

Kenyan sugar prices in the first quarter of 2014 fell from an average of $43 (Sh3,870) to $36 (Sh3,240) per 50kg sack due to illegal imports, Kenya Sugar Board CEO Rosemary Mkok told South Africa’s Financial Mail newspaper in May.

The black market trade is so entrenched that domestic sugar processors routinely import cheaper sugar and repackage it under their own brand. Mohamed Mohamud Hassan is a former smuggler living in Dadaab’s Ifo camp.


Camp life, he said, includes a mini-cartel made up of a few dozen importers controlling the trade in sugar — as well as powdered milk, oil, pasta, rice, cigarettes and clothing items — and colluding to keep the price around $34 (Sh3,000) for a 50kg sack.

When there are disagreements among members, he said, the price of a sack can drop to as low $25 (Sh2,200). Two or three lorries typically arrive in Ifo every night, each carrying 250 bags of smuggled sugar.

Hassan stated that for each lorry, the police officers receive a payoff of around $1,120 (Sh100,000), roughly 15 per cent of the worth of the shipment. So lucrative are the illicit gains that branches of the Kenyan security forces compete against one another for bribes.

Mr Hassan recalled a night when he was transporting a consignment of smuggled cigarettes and was stopped by an Administration Police (AP) patrol demanding a payoff.

“We couldn’t agree on an amount. They wanted too much,” he said. Having no legal jurisdiction to arrest and hold the smugglers themselves, the officers handed them over to the local police station.

This second group of officers was more amenable to negotiating a financial arrangement. They then agreed to help Mr Hassan evade the AP patrol, still lurking nearby. “So the police took the cigarettes to the camp in a police car,” Hassan laughed.

“When the AP officers asked about them, they said that customs agents seized them.”
A local senior police officer told me that cross-border smuggling is an unsolvable problem, citing the numerous service roads – known as ‘cut lines’ – built by oil companies that make it easy for traffickers to bypass official routes.

But he pointed to an instance in August when police had seized 150 sacks of illicit sugar. When such seizures happen, Mr Hassan said, it is usually because officials from Nairobi are visiting the district.

“You have to show them that there are people actually doing their jobs,” he said.

The sometimes under-appreciated link between corruption and national security is nowhere more salient than in Kenya. Author Michela Wrong addressed the issue in a May 2014 Foreign Policy article: 

“What perhaps most frustrates the government’s critics is its failure to trace the causal connection between grand corruption and deteriorating security in a country once regarded as a rare ‘safe’ African state.” 

Illustrating the point, the four perpetrators of the September 2013 Westgate mall attack had crossed overland from Somalia into Kenya some four months prior, possibly somewhere around Liboi.

To view the ease of their entry into Kenya as a distinct issue from the ease with which smugglers crisscross the border would be naive.

“The more charcoal exported from Kismayo, the more sugar comes in to Kenya, the more that border policy in Kenya is distorted, the more smuggling of other things takes place, and the more dangerous Kenya becomes,” the regional intelligence source said.

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s attack, Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku and Inspector-General David Kimaiyo took the fall for the broader national security failure, with the former being sacked and the latter retiring.

But this cosmetic response has done little to address the underlying problem. So far, Kenya’s leaders have opted to take the easy way out, cracking down on the country’s Somali community in lieu of tackling corruption — what Wrong calls the “eating” culture.

Future generations of Kenyans are likely to pay the price.